Women are finding refuge from domestic abuse and other social problems this Christmas, thanks to the dedicated work of a charitable North-East housing association. PETER BARRON reports

SANTA Claus and his elves are in position among the sacks of presents under the Christmas tree, a festive feast is spread out on the table, and Chris Rea is Driving Home For Christmas yet again in the background.

The door bursts open and in come the first party guests: a young mum called Gabriela, with 18-months-old Bora, toddling excitedly beside her.

The little girl claps her hands, stops to pull a big spoon out of a drawer, then inspires a roomful of laughter by running over to present it, triumphantly, to the man in the red suit and funny white beard.

It’s a scene that happily captures the magic of the festive season. And yet, it is set against a background of hardship that brings frightened women to this unassuming building on the backstreets of Middlesbrough.

Rainham House is a central point in a vital network of support provided by the North Star Housing Group. An award-winning, not-for-profit housing association, North Star works with specialist providers to run five North-East refuges.

In addition, it provides a huge range of supported accommodation for women fleeing domestic abuse, or facing a range of other challenges, such as homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and relationship breakdowns.

In total, the support adds up to 620 beds in safe, comfortable accommodation across the region.

“We get people who’ve really been through the ringer,” says Jan Mohan, service co-ordinator for North Star’s ‘Hestia Service’ – named after the Greek Goddess of Hearth and Home – which offers safe accommodation for vulnerable women.

“By the time they come to us, they’ve suffered too much already, so we have to make sure they get the best possible support, with the ultimate aim of empowering them to live independent lives.”

And Jan knows better than most what that means. When she was in her twenties, she found herself homeless with two babies after a relationship breakdown, but she has gradually rebuilt her life.

She gained a first-class honours degree in fine art at Teesside University, volunteered in schools with disabled and mentally ill children, went on to build a successful career in the supported housing sector, and ended up as a valued member of the North Star family.

“I vowed to never to treat anyone the way I was treated by the authorities back then and, thankfully, a lot has changed since those days,” she adds.

Today is ‘Christmas Extravaganza’ day at Rainham House, and it’s been months in the planning. Working in partnership with local businesses and charities, staff have collected enough toys, luxuries and food for 18 families to have a Christmas to remember.

“We started out wanting to give each of the women a pair of pyjamas and slippers – things that most of us take for granted – but the response was absolutely overwhelming. I’ve never seen anything like it,” explains Jan.

It’s a real team effort. The Santa at today’s party is being sportingly played by Adam Clark, North Star’s Executive Director of Customers, and he’s ably supported by James Walder, Executive Director of Finance & Business Support, dressed as an elf. The rest of the Rainham team have entered into the Christmas spirit by wearing festive hats and reindeer antlers.

The only disappointment is that a performance by the Recovery Connections Choir – made up of service-users – has had to be cancelled due to growing concerns over the Omicron variant.

However, there’s more good cheer to come on Christmas Eve, when restaurateur Tarek Thoma, from The Oven, in Middlesbrough, will be delivering Christmas dinners. Tarek has been a regular supporter throughout lockdown, supplying hot meals for the women.

Marnie Rauf, 18, a Rainham resident since November, is certainly grateful for all the help she’s received: “Without it, I might easily have ended up homeless,” she admits. “It’s amazing to see how passionate the staff are – especially over Christmas. They’re always there for you when you need them.”

Marnie’s had a difficult time but has plans to study English Literature and Language at university next year, with ambitions to be a political journalist or speechwriter. Offers are already in the bag from York, Reading, and Kent, and she’s excitedly awaiting the outcome of interviews with Oxford and Durham.

Meanwhile, Katie, a mum of two boys, also has North Star to thank for giving her a haven after she fled from domestic abuse at the hands of her husband.

“It started as coercive abuse but when I didn’t do what he demanded, it started to become more and more physical,” she explains. “He tried not to be physical because he knew it would be visible, and he’d be in big trouble, but he couldn’t help himself.”

Katie was married for seven years, and it took that long to plan her escape: “Looking back, the relationship was abusive right from the start, but I didn’t realise it at the time,” she says, wiping away tears.

“For example, he refused to give me a key, so I couldn’t leave the house. He had to control me because he was convinced I’d be meeting someone, so I ended up as a prisoner.

“He tried to make me believe I was mentally ill, and undermined my confidence with constant criticism. He told me I wasn’t a real woman.”

In the end, Katie was forced to flee with her boys to an emergency refuge, but the escape bid only lasted a week.

“I hadn’t planned properly, so he was able to track us down," she says. "He said he was sorry and I went back with him, only for it to start all over again.”

Four months later, she ran away again, only this time she was better prepared, having sought help from support agencies.

She spent three months in a refuge at Redcar before she was referred to Hestia by Middlesbrough Council and given accommodation in a fully-furnished two-bedroomed house.

“For the first time in years, I feel safe and comfortable, and that means the world to me. My boys and I can breathe – we feel free,” she sighs.

Katie is now studying counselling as a distant learner at Middlesbrough College, with ambitions to be a support worker in a refuge.

She also goes into schools to help educate girls about how to deal with domestic abuse.

“I want to be in a position where I can give other women the kind of support that’s changed my life,” she declares.

Katie’s story is a justifiable source of pride for Supported Housing Manager, Claire Teasdale, because it sums up the impact North Star is having.

“This isn’t a job you do just for the money,” she says. “We do it because we want to make a difference to people's lives, and we’re constantly thinking about how we can make improvements to the service.”

The next mission is to raise money to buy play equipment for the children whose mothers have come in search of safety and kindness.

But for now, the priority is to give them a happy, peaceful Christmas.

Across the room, little Bora has plucked up courage to sit next to Santa. She’s looking up at him as she opens a present, and the smile is infectious.